Oldest black city in Ala. is a 'place in peril'
City that thrived in Jim Crow South on verge of dying
HOBSON CITY, Ala. - The cafes, the school, and the roller rink are long gone from Alabama's oldest black city. Empty homes and businesses line the narrow streets.
Hobson City no longer has a police or fire department, and weeds have overgrown the oldest part of the cemetery and a park in this small town, which once thrived as a rarity: a place where black people were in charge in the midst of the Jim Crow South.
Now, with the town on the verge of dying, preservationists have put the east Alabama landmark on the critical list. The Alabama Historical Commission this month included the community of 878 people on its annual inventory of "Places in Peril."
The panel's list typically includes historic structures, such as old homes and abandoned theaters. This year it takes in an entire town, which in recent decades has seen its foundation collapse.
Incorporated in 1899, Hobson City was formed 12 years after Eatonville, Fla., which calls itself the nation's oldest black city.
In the decades after the Civil War, blacks formed scores of colonies and communities as they migrated to Kansas and Oklahoma and sought independence in locales around the South. Some, like Eatonville and Hobson City, formally incorporated.
"There was a lot of dissatisfaction and alienation among blacks by the 1890s because of the refusal of whites in the South to allow them any real role in civic life," said University of Tennessee history professor Robert J. Norrell, who has written extensively on race relations.
Blacks also were subject to discrimination and abuse by law enforcement. "Together, these created a desire for separate municipalities," Norrell said.
Hobson City's residents created "a thriving municipality, which people at the time said couldn't be done because blacks couldn't govern," said Dorothy Walker, public outreach coordinator with the Alabama Historical Commission. "If it is someday absorbed into another city, it will lose that historic identity."
Roderick Boyd, a handyman and lifelong Hobson City resident, worries about his hometown's survival. "I fear it's gone too far," said Boyd, 49.
A 2-mile-long sliver about 60 miles east of Birmingham, Hobson City is only a few hundred yards wide in places. Wedged between two predominantly white cities, Oxford and Anniston, it has a few white residents.
During the 1800s, Walker said, it was an all-black section of Oxford called Mooree Quarter, a possible reference to old slave quarters in the area. Residents were allowed to vote, but whites maintained control.
The racial relationship shifted in the 1890s, when the people of Mooree Quarter swayed an election, Walker said. The state had not yet disenfranchised blacks - that wouldn't happen until 1901. So, Walker said, whites petitioned state leaders to de-annex Mooree Quarter.
Kicked out of Oxford, blacks incorporated a new city and named it for Richmond P. Hobson, a white Spanish-American War hero from Alabama who was later elected to Congress. The 1900 Census put the new town's population at 292.
Hobson City grew to about 1,500 people by the mid-1900s, with restaurants, laundries, stores, a skating rink and other businesses. The town was poor, but had a vibrant culture centered on the all-black vocational school. "It was never a rich town, but it was a good place to raise children," said Mayor Alberta McCrory.
Federal antipoverty money flowed to Hobson City in the 1960s, and federal aid helped build a modern municipal complex in the 1970s. But the end of racial segregation sent the city into a tailspin around the same time, McCrory said.
"Sometimes I think I wouldn't have gone out and done all that marching if I realized how much we were going to lose," said McCrory, 61, who as a young woman participated in civil rights protest.
The all-black Calhoun County Training School became an integrated elementary school in 1972, and fair housing laws meant that blacks could live elsewhere. Many who could afford to move away did so, and Hobson City lost hundreds of residents.
McCrory hopes being labeled "in peril" will increase public awareness of the town's plight.